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Reviewer: Jeff Day
Vinyl: Garrard 301 with Cain & Cain maple & walnut plinth, Denon 103 phono cartridge, Origin Live Silver tonearm [on loan from Origin Live for the Garrard Project], SME 3012 vintage tonearm [on loan from Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports], Pete Riggle Audio VTAF (Vertical Tracking Angle on the Fly), Auditorium 23 moving coil step-up transformer [on loan from Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports], Tom Evans Audio Design Groove Plus phono stage [in for review], Fi Yph phono stage, 47Laboratory Shigaraki phono stage [in for review], 47 Laboratory 4723 MC Bee phono cartridge [in for review]
FM source: Vintage early 1960s Scott 370 FM vacuum tube tuner supported by Yamamoto ebony audio bases from Venus HiFi, Magnum Dynalab ST-2 vertical omnidirectional FM antenna
Digital sources: Meridian 508.20 CD player used as a transport with the Audio Logic 2400 vacuum tube DAC crunching numbers
Preamplifiers: Tom Evans Audio Design Vibe, Tom Evans Audio Design Vibe Series 7 with Pulse power supply [in for review]
Integrated amplifiers: Almarro A205A EL84 SEP; Sonic Impact Class T
Amplifiers: Fi 2A3 single-ended triode monoblocks; Tom Evans Audio Design Linear A power amplifier [in for review]
Speakers: Avantgarde Duo 2.0, Omega Super 3 & matching Skylan Stands
Cables: 47 Laboratory OTA cable kit [in for review]; Nirvana S-X interconnects between DAC and preamplifier, Nirvana S-L interconnects between preamplifier and amplifiers, Nirvana S-L speaker cables between amplifiers and speakers; a custom Nirvana wiring harness to connect the Duos midrange and tweeter horns and woofer module, Nirvana Transmission Digital Interface [on loan]; Cardas Neutral Reference digital cable; Auditorium 23 speaker cable [on loan from Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports]
Stands: Atlantis Video Reference equipment rack, Billy Bags 2-shelf rack
Power line conditioning: none
Room size: 20' L x 17' W x 24' H
Review component retail: $600
|The Innovators, Artists and Poets
It's always exciting for me to write about the innovators in audio and learn about the contributions they've made to the audio arts. I've had a ball writing about such audio luminaries as Keith Aschenbrenner of Germany (Auditorium 23), Don Garber of the USA (Fi), Tom Evans of England (Tom Evans Audio Design) and Shigeki Yamamoto of Japan (Yamamoto Sound Craft Inc.), to name a few. All of these individuals have bucked the conventional audio wisdom of their times and instead followed their own muse to musical ecstasy, a passion which ultimately led them to produce finely crafted products that play music brilliantly and sound superb. These cottage industry artisans and luminaries are the heroes of the audio underground and the audio poets who give our hobby its musically artistic heartbeat.
To me, these innovators, artists and poets of audio represent the best of what our hobby is all about. Their passion for music and their love of the audio arts has led them to establish unique design breakthroughs that appear first as a mere whisper in the shadowy world of the audio underground. As the full magnitude of their accomplishments becomes subsequently evident, news spreads until even the mainstream audio community is all abuzz. Such creations inspire passion in music lovers & gear heads like few others can. This in turn stimulates the inventors to further creativity as the full breakthrough status of their contributions becomes globally apparent and acknowledged.
The rise of the single-ended triode (SET) amplifier and single driver loudspeaker (SDL) movements in recent times are both examples of such innovators' influence on the larger audio culture. Part of the reason they inspire such passion -- aside from their obvious musical & sonic prowess is that their musical creations are available to the public in much the same way that the artistic works of emerging sculptors, painters and photographers are: as hand-made works or art. Their designs also demonstrate a satisfying musical & technical creativity, with the most popular ones offered at relatively real-world prices that the audio everyman and everywoman can afford. They are the peoples' artisans.
Junji Kimura of 47 Laboratory
One of the most original audio innovators of recent times is the Japanese audio genius Junji Kimura, known for founding 47 Laboratory in Japan. Junji's innovative approach to product designs such as the remarkable PiTracer CD transport and Gaincard amplifier have won him critical acclaim in the audio press. The first news of Junji's designs in the American press occurred in the now defunct Listener magazine of Art Dudley whose team of collaborators had a knack for spotting innovative musical & good-sounding equipment in the audio underground. Junji's designs eventually achieved critical acclaim in audio magazines like Stereophile which introduced the larger, more mainstream enthusiast community to the unique creations of 47 Laboratory's founder and artist in residence.
What only a few people are aware of is the extensive audio experience in both vacuum tube and solid state audio designs Junji-San acquired before he founded 47 Laboratory in 1992. From 1963 to 1972, Junji designed tonearms, turntables, loudspeakers, amplifiers and channel dividers for the electronics giants Pioneer and Kenwood. In 1970, Junji co-founded Uni Creates Co. During the next 10 years, he designed for them the Luxman L & G series of components, the Luxman PD series record player and the CL32 vacuum tube preamplifier. From 1980 to 1992, Junji contributed the Kyosera PL901 and PL910 record players and the A710 and 910 series amplifiers.
In 1992, Kimura-San went solo and deeply into the audio underground, founding 47 Laboratory to become his new outlet. Junji's first audio love is that of vacuum tube amplification and LP playback for its "rich and fresh musical presence with ambiance". Yet the first audio product Junji designed for his new 47 Laboratory was a CD transport. You might wonder why a vinyl and tube-loving audio enthusiast would choose the digital medium for the first project of his new company. I certainly did.
Vinyl is inarguably the most musical medium for the HiFi enthusiast but Junji honored the maxim if it ain't broke, don't fix it and focused on the obviously broken digital sound. Junji recognized the increasingly important role that CD would play in the music industry and how many important future musical works would only be released in that format. So he went about building a CD transport that could extract the very best music the digital media was capable of delivering. Junji also went on to design the Gaincard integrated amplifier as part of the PiTracer transport project which you can read more about in Srajan's excellent review in progress, then later the Progression DAC, the Phonocube phono stage and the Input Chooser, all of which would become the Reference Series of 47 Laboratory Products. Junji also went on to design the more cost-conscious Shigaraki Series of electronics.
I'm presently listening to the impressive new 47 Laboratory 4723 MC Bee phono cartridge and Shigaraki phono stage [above], about which I will report on fully in an upcoming review. While Junji is most noted for his design work with electronics and his pioneering work with op-amps, today's review is about his least expensive product. It's not a piece of electronics but the remarkably innovative and good-sounding Cable Kit that, as it turns out, can embarrass many of the most costly high-end cables with tremendous sonics & music-playing ability, good looks and low cost. But before I tell you more about the Cable Kit, let me introduce you to the US importer of 47 Laboratory products, Yoshi Segoshi of Sakura Systems. He is directly responsible for turning on US HiFi buffs to 47 Laboratory products and the wonders of op-amps driving loudspeakers.
Yoshi Segoshi of Sakura Systems
The likeable Yoshi Segoshi [above with current system but his mug from when he was younger] is one of the true gentlemen of the US audio community. Always gracious and kind in conversations, Yoshi is a pleasure to know and talk to. I was really curious to find out more about Yoshi and how he became associated with 47 Laboratory. I asked him about his first contact with 47 Laboratory products, how his business Sakura Systems came about, his tastes in audio and what he's listening to in his home HiFi system these days. Here's what Yoshi told me:
"When I moved to the States in 1995, I was surprised by how much cheaper the US high-end products were here as compared to their price in Japan after importation. I was more into mainstream audio at that time and thought of buying a Levinson power amp that was $4000 in the US. Since I didn't know of a Levinson dealer where I lived, the next time I visited Japan I stopped by a Levinson dealer in Tokyo to audition an amp. On the shelf next to the Levinson was this tiny black thing called a Gaincard. I asked the dealer if I could audition it, too. I liked it more than the Levinson and decided to buy it. With the budget I had set aside for the Levinson, I had enough money left over that I could afford to buy an extra power supply as well. The dealer didn't have an extra one in stock and suggested that I pick it up at the manufacturer. He turned out to be located near my print making studio. So I visited 47 Laboratory to pick up the extra power supply and became friends with Junji.
Since my first purchase of a Gaincard, I visited Junji almost every time I went back to Japan, 3-4 times a year at that time. Junji indicated some interest in marketing 47 Laboratory products in the States and suggested that I become his distributor. Although I'd been an audiophile since my late teens, I had never been in the business so I was naturally hesitant about it. I started checking into the situation in the US by reading their audio magazines and asking the people I knew about the idea. Finally I decided to give it a try. That was in 1997. At that time, the tube/analog/music tribe thing was in full swing, with Listener, Gizmo and Positive Feedback all actively promoting phenomena outside the mainstream. I decided to see if they would be interested in the Gaincard. It turned out that with its uniqueness and good sound, it generated a number of positive reviews right away. That's how it started."
I asked Yoshi how he became interested in music and HiFi. He referred me to an article he wrote: Have You Been To "Naru"? It's a good read. Yoshi's first musical interest was jazz, which was developed as a youngster in the jazz café scene in Japan during the 1960s. Yoshi describes how there were 30-40 jazz cafés in Tokyo then where you could get a cuppa java and listen to jazz records on the café system. I've included a couple of intriguing snippets from Yoshi's article to give you a feel for the music & HiFi scene of the jazz cafés in Tokyo at that time:
|"There weren't any real live venues in Japan until the '80s. What we had instead were Jazz Kissa (Jazz cafés), probably 30-40 of them in Tokyo alone, each with a 3000-4000 collection of jazz LPs and an incredible audio system for that time. Most of them had JBLs (Olympus, Paragons etc.) or Altec A-7s and A-5s. Smaller ones had JBL Lancer 101s, JBL Novas etc. Naru had Pioneer's 604 knock-off directly installed on the wall near the ceiling.|
|The sound had this ease which I hardly hear from modern speakers. Those vintage JBLs, Altecs and Tannoys were rather narrow range (probably 50Hz-15kHz or so) and not as clean sounding as most of modern speakers but very efficient and fast. For me, this ease of presentation is very important to get connected to the music and feel the breath of the music. Most of modern speakers, in spite of (or because of?) their extended frequency response, feel constrained and laborious by comparison and leave me as an observer of the soundstage. In those vintage systems, woofers (Altec 515s, JBL D130s, 2220s etc.) came with a huge Alnico magnet and very light cone structure with a short stroke that allowed them very quick go-stop motion. Mid to highs were covered by compression horns. They were crossed at around 800Hz or so, with most of|
|the bass notes covered by the woofer. Many of today's commercially available horn systems employ almost the same configuration, but the woofers have longer excursion for low-end extension, making them slower and sluggish.
People talk about musical systems these days. Well, for me, there are two kinds of musical systems. The first kind connects you to the music so strongly that you forget about the gear and bathe in the glory of music. The other kind -- that's totally boring -- is an audio system where you just try to concentrate on the sound of the music played. Despite their shortcomings by today's standard, those systems at the Jazz cafés definitely belonged to the former group. They weren't all-around performers like many of today's mainstream systems try to be. Mainstreamers are like straight 'A' students: They do academic things well but when you want to become friends with them, it's a different story - boring. Your best friend may not do so well at school and you may have to help him with homework sometimes but he knows how to be fun, joyous and thrilling to be with."
While Yoshi's first love is jazz, he has become more and more interested in classical orchestral works. These days Yoshi's personal listening system consists of a PiTracer transport, a Z-Systems sample rate converter, two TOA DP0204's digital signal processors, a special 6- channel Gaincard and a 3-way speaker system consisting of TAD/Pioneer RT-R9, JBL 2450+2397 and Reps R-1 in a Medallion Cabinet. Yoshi says, "it's a 3-way multi-amp system with the DP0204 used as crossover network. I need the Z-link to convert 44.1kHz to 48kHz since the DP0204 is a pro unit and only takes a 48kHz signal. I can connect an analog source using the DP0204's analog input but that means A/D conversion at the input and D/A again at the output. That completely screws things up so I'm using this system for digital only. I have some tweaks and mods here and there."
Ain't that a pretty cool bio? Junji and Yoshi have really captured my imagination with their love for music, their fascinating backgrounds and innovative ideas. Many thanks to Yoshi for making us in the US aware of Kimura-San and the remarkable 47 Laboratory products. Speaking of which, let's take a look at one of the best values in audio cables today: The 47 Laboratory Cable Kit.
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